LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins announced Sunday they still plan to visit the White House and meet with American President Donald Trump who has been involved in an escalating war of words with US professional athletes.
The Penguins said their acceptance of Trump's invitation is a continuation of a long-standing practice of the NHL championship team visiting the White House.
"The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House," the Penguins said in a statement.
"We attended White House ceremonies after previous championships - touring the historic building and visiting briefly with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama - and have accepted an invitation to attend again this year.
"Any agreement or disagreement with a president's politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways. However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit."
The Penguins decision to go comes amid a wave of protests followed by a war of words between Trump and several prominent American athletes. Trump's verbal attacks have been directed mainly at National Football League players who kneel during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Trump reignited the issue on Friday at a political rally in Alabama when he suggested NFL players should be "fired" for kneeling or protesting during the American anthem.
The American sports stars are following the example of former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick who said last year he wasn't going to stand for a flag of a country that "oppresses black people".
Unlike the NBA and NFL, there hasn't been a back and forth between Trump and the NHL.
There are just nine Americans on the Penguins 23-man roster and that is typical of most NHL clubs. The Penguins also had players from Canada, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland last season.
In contrast, the Pittsburgh Steeler players that stayed in the lockerroom during Sunday's anthem are all Americans.
Blake Wheeler, a Winnipeg Jets forward from Minnesota, is one of the few NHL players to criticize Trump on social media.
Since taking office in January, Trump has hosted the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and members of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs to honour their titles.
On Saturday, Trump rescinded an invitation to the White House for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Trump tweeted Sunday: "Please to inform that the Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL will be joining me at the White House for Ceremony. Great team!"
The NHL brass has not commented on national anthem protests or Trump.
In September, John Tortorella, the coach of US national team at the World Cup of Hockey, said if any of his players sit during the anthem they would "sit there the rest of the game".